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The 2021 Twins have sky-high upside

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This might be the most exciting Twins team yet

MLB: Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins
Alex Kirilloff is one of several upside plays by the Twins this season.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Have you heard the news?

The Chicago White Sox are quite likely to be even better in 2021 than they were in 2020. But not so fast with the “Sox are winning the AL Central” takes. Hold your narrative horses, please.

While the White Sox are undoubtedly improved, so are the Twins. And beyond that, the Twins were beset by a shocking number of injuries last year and still managed to win the division.

Let’s take a quick look at the Twins roster, comparing 2020 to 2021 as we sit here now, two weeks prior to pitchers and catchers reporting to Fort Myers.

Catcher

Out: Alex Avila
In: Ryan Jeffers (kind of)

The floor-upside combination of the Twins’ catching duo is perhaps the best of any depth chart in baseball.

At this point, it’s fair to deduce that the Twins will slot 2019 Silver Slugger award-winner Mitch Garver in as the Opening Day starter. He had an atrocious 2020 that was certainly impacted by injury, although his down year can’t be solely blamed on any one thing.

Will Garver have another year like his .995 OPS, 31-homer-in-359-plate-appearances campaign in 2019? Perhaps not, but it’s a safe bet that the real Garver is closer to that performance than last year’s .511 OPS version.

Ryan Jeffers was a revelation in his stead, showing more pop than he had in a 2019 campaign split between High-A and Double-A. There’s plenty of upside remaining for the 24-year-old.

Both are steady defenders, and it’s safe to say the Twins are set at the backstop position.

Middle Infield

Out: Ehire Adrianza, Marwin Gonzalez
In: Andrelton Simmons

This is the Twins’ greatest area of improvement.

Andrelton Simmons is one of the best defensive shortstops of this generation, and Jorge Polanco’s recent defensive struggles are largely hidden with his move to second base.

Luis Arraez will shift to the primary backup role at several positions, including second base and third base with the ability to fill in at shortstop and in the corner outfield spots.

Basically, the Twins are swapping out Ehire Adrianza and Marwin Gonzalez for Simmons and an extra upside, whether that ends up being Brent Rooker, Travis Blankenhorn, or Willians Astudillo. Along the way, they have drastically improved their infield defense.

Corner Infield

Out: Ehire Adrianza, Marwin Gonzalez
In: New backups

No change to the starters here, although the primary backups at first will likely be Rooker and maybe even Donaldson or Alex Kirilloff — both massive upgrades over Gonzalez and Adrianza. This is another area that Arraez protects, as he could play third or left field and allow one of the aforementioned duo to play first.

If Donaldson is healthy, he’ll play third base at least four or five times a week. But there’s the option to slide him to designated hitter or first-base and plug in Arraez at third. If Blankenhorn or Astudillo make the team, they’ll be backup options there as well.

Outfield

Out: Eddie Rosario, LaMonte Wade Jr.
In: Alex Kirilloff

While we don’t know for sure what Kirilloff will bring to the table, his prospect profile, minor-league success, and one-game performance in the A.L. Wild Card series all tell the story of a player who should have an immediate positive impact with the big club.

The proper way to look at this is a) cost and b) upside. Rosario was paid $8 million by Cleveland and would have received at least $10 million in arbitration if he had stayed with the Twins. In terms of upside, we all knew what Rosario was: a free-swinger with great pop and decent speed. His defense fluctuated a bit, but there’s reason to believe that Kirilloff could be better than Rosario in nearly every facet with superstar upside.

Of course, anything can happen in a player’s rookie season, so slotting in a player with zero Triple-A experience still carries risk.

While Byron Buxton and Max Kepler remain the starters in center field and right field, respectively, the Twins had something of a logjam at the backup corner spots prior to trading LaMonte Wade Jr. to San Francisco this week. Now, the backup spot appears to be Jake Cave’s, with Rooker also capable of playing both corners and backing up at first base and right field.

Trevor Larnach will start the year in Triple-A and has slashed .307/.385.468 in two minor-league season. It seems likely that he’ll be used as trade bait, assuming Kirilloff gets off to a strong start the team stays relatively healthy. But for the time being, he can be considered next-up in the outfield corners.

Oh, and don’t forget about Arraez. We may see him in left field at times early in the season as the Twins seek ways to keep his bat in the lineup.

Starting Pitching

Out: Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, Jake Odorizzi (?)
In: J.A. Happ

This is another area that has treaded water but was somehow underrated last year.

The Twins will enter the season with Kenta Maeda and Jose Berrios leading the staff with capable No. 3 and No. 4 options in Michael Pineda and new addition J.A. Happ. The fifth spot is currently Randy Dobnak’s to lose, but Jake Odorizzi, among others, remain free agents.

If the Twins manage to bring Odorizzi back (unlikely at this point, but not impossible), than the rotation will be improved over last year’s.

Pineda is healthy and no longer suspended. Happ is likely to be better than how Dobnak/Homer Bailey/Rich Hill and an injured Odorizzi performed last year. If Odorizzi were to re-sign and allow Dobnak to slide into a depth role, then this would be one of the best rotations, 1 through 5, in the league.

At worst, this unit should be in the neighborhood of last year’s unit that finished No. 5 in the majors in starter’s ERA.

Bullpen

Out: Trevor May, Matt Wisler, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard (?)
In: Alex Colomé, Hansel Robles, Shaun Anderson, Ian Hamilton

The Twins are hoping to tread water here, too.

Obviously, losing May, Romo and Clippard leaves quite the void in high-leverage situations. Colomé, the former All-Star and White Sox closer, is arguably better than everyone on this list, including May, despite a dip in velocity.

But Robles is something of a gamble after a brutal 2020 with the Angels, and the Twins are hoping to do something Wisler-like with Anderson and his slider. (Ironically, Wisler signed with the Giants and the Twins acquired Anderson from San Francisco this week.)

There’s room for another move here. The most logical one would be to bring Clippard back, and there’s plenty of chatter that the Twins are considering such a move.

Expect young, upside arms such as Jorge Alcala and Cody Stashak to get the opportunity at more high-leverage situations this season. If the Twins hit on at least one of them as a potential late-inning arm to join Tyler Duffey, Taylor Rogers, and Colomé, then the Twins bullpen will be just fine.

Summarizing the roster movement

Key Players Out: Ehire Adrianza, Marwin Gonzalez, Eddie Rosario, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, Jake Odorizzi, Trevor May, Matt Wisler, Sergio Romo, Tyler Clippard

Key Players In: Ryan Jeffers (kind of), Andrelton Simmons, Alex Kirilloff, J.A. Happ, Alex Colomé

Clearly, the 2021 Twins are planning to rely on young, somewhat unproven players much more than they were in 2020. Out is Avila, in is Jeffers. Out are Adrianza and Gonzalez, in is some combination of Rooker and Blankenhorn. Out is Rosario, in is Kirilloff. At least one bullpen spot will be occupied with a relatively green arm, as well.

Still, the name of the game is upside. Jeffers, Rooker, and Kirilloff all have much greater upside than the players that they are replacing. Ditto for Alcala when compared to Romo.

And don’t forget, we’re not talking about the meat of the Twins order, or the top two slots in the rotation. All of these roles are on the fringes, and while they make the difference between a wild-card berth and a division title, the Twins are built to be contenders on the backs of veteran hitters (Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco) top-flight defenders (Byron Buxton, Andrelton Simmons, and Donaldson), a legit 1-2 starting pitching punch (Kenta Maeda and Jose Berrios) and a lights-out back-end of the bullpen (Alex Colomé, Taylor Rogers, and Tyler Duffey).

In short, this thing isn’t resting on the shoulders of rookies. It’s up to the proven veterans to stay healthy and produce, which they have largely done over the years. That will equal a playoff berth.

But the upside of this team is sky-high. And that’s due to the young talent the Twins will have batting sixth, seventh, and eighth, playing in left field and the super-utility spot, and pitching in the middle innings.

Buckle up. The 2021 Twins should be a ton of fun.